It is basic to historic Christian teaching and confession that Jesus is reigning and ruling now. In the sixth article of the Apostles’ Creed all Christians confess, “He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Our interest just now is in second clause of this article: “and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty” (sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis). This is a truly ancient confession. Ignatius of Antioch, writing well before 150 AD confessed, “and sits at his right hand” (καὶ ἐκάθισεν ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ).1 In the early 3rd century Tertullian confessed, ” sitting now at the right hand of the Father” (sedentem nunc ad dexteram Patris). He used virtually identical language in his summary of the Rule of Faith (regula fidei) Against Praxeas and and on his Prescription Against Heretics.2
In the context of the widespread influence of various forms of Dispensationalism it is important to observe that the notion that Christ is reigning now, over his (twofold) kingdom, is an ancient and even universal Christian doctrine. It is not peculiar to Reformed nor even to Augustinian Christians. It’s important to observe the ancient roots of this confession since many evangelicals have little or no familiarity with the Apostles’ Creed—which was not written by the Apostles but is a summary of the faith of the early church—and thus, have not had the experience of saying these words on a regular basis.
I mention Dispensationalism in part because, when I first encountered Reformed theology and piety, one of the questions that I discussed with my evangelical friends was whether “Christ is reigning now.” Those with strongly Dispensational commitments said to me, “Well, if he’s reigning now, he’s doing a bad job of it.” What they meant is that their conception of Christ’s millennial reign included such earthly glory and conquest that, absent the features they associate with his reign, e.g., the rebuilt temple and his visible, glorious reign on the earth, they could not say that he was reigning now. Thus, it’s interesting that John Walvoord, in The Millennial Kingdom, under the heading, “The Premillennial Concept of the Present Age” makes no mention of Christ’s present reign from heaven. He wrote that the Premillennial point of view makes, “the inter-advent period unique and unpredicted in the Old Testament.”3 His account of Christian existence between Christ’s ascension and his return is fairly described as bleak.
In 1996 Stephen J. Nichols argued “the rejection, postponement, and entirely future fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom is and has been a consistently held view within “normative” dispensationalism.”4 He notes that Charles Ryrie’s revised version of Dispensationalism had four ways of speaking about the kingdom.5 It’s not clear to me how each of these relates to the traditional Christian view that Christ is now seated at the right hand but perhaps the traditional view is implicit in one or more of them? The problem inherent in classic and revised Dispensationalism is that the kingdom that Jesus announced seems to be closely associated with an offered, earthly, Davidic kingdom that was rejected. In that case it becomes more difficult to speak of his present reign. Ryrie wrote:
Though He never ceases to be King and, of course, is King today as always, Christ is never designated as King of the church. . . . Though Christ is a King today, He does not rule as King.6
J. Dwight Pentecost said essentially the same thing:
The allegation that Christ is seated on the father’s throne reigning over a spiritual kingdom, the church, simply does not fulfill the promises of the covenant.7
So, in this view Christ is king but, in view of the rejection and postponement of the offered, earthly, Davidic kingdom, Christ is still king but not over the church and he is not presently ruling. He seems, according to influential versions of Dispensationalism, to be a king in waiting.
Nichols objects to the absence in Progressive Dispensationalism of the earthly, Davidic kingdom offered, rejected, and postponed:
Discussions of the offer, rejection, and postponement of the Davidic kingdom are absent in the work of the progressives. Bock argues that Luke-Acts teaches that Christ has already inaugurated His reign of Christ as Davidic king, that His present position of “being seated on David’s throne is linked to being seated at God’s right hand,” and that a future consummative stage of the kingdom rule will follow.8
Pace, to the degree his assessment is correct, Reformed Christians ought to welcome such developments among progressive Dispensationalism since it seems to be a move closer to the historic Christian view, namely that Christ is king now over his church and all things, that the kingdom has always been under the period of types and shadows but may be said to have been announced and inaugurated particularly at the coming of Christ when he said:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” Mark 1:15; ESV).
Jesus did not restrict his announcement as if to say, “Now, understand that I’m offering an earthly Davidic kingdom to the Jews.” The only way to see that sort of qualification is to know it is there a priori. One would have to think that there are two parallel tracks in redemptive history, a plan for a national Jewish kingdom on the earth and something else, a church-mystery. Apart from such an assumption, one would could not arrive at such a reading of Jesus’ language.
Further, there is certainly no consensus among New Testament scholars that there is, in the gospels, any great distinction between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God. There is good evidence to think they are synonymous. The parallel to Mark 1:15 in Matthew 4:17 says,
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Both forms of the announcement regard the same entity. That the expressions “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are interchangeable teach us that the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated is principally eschatological but was manifested clearly during his ministry on the earth and, according to the early church, the Apostles’ Creed, the medieval church—during which the question was not whether Christ is reigning now but through whom and in what order—Jesus was thought to reign now, from heaven, over the earth generally and particularly over his people, the church.
There is much more to be considered, which we will do in subsequent posts but this background helps us understand why we confess in Heidelberg Catechism 50
50. Why is it added: “And sits at the right hand of God”?
Because Christ ascended into heaven for this end, that He might there appear as the Head of His Church, by whom the Father governs all things.
In subsequent posts we’ll consider why, in light of Scripture, we speak of Jesus present reign, through whom the Father governs all things.
1. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Greek and Latin Creeds, with Translations, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 11–12.
2. Schaff, Creeds, 2.17.
3. John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 134.
4. Stephen J. Nichols, “The Dispensational View of the Davidic Kingdom: A Response to Progressive Dispensationalism,” The Masters Seminary Journal 7 (1996) 216.
5. “Under this rubric, he distills four concepts: (1) the universal kingdom; (2) the Davidic/Messianic kingdom; (3) the mystery form of the kingdom; and (4) the spiritual kingdom.” Nichols, “The Dispensational View,” 218.
6. Nichols, ibid., 224.
7. Nichols, ibid., 226.
8. Nichols, ibid., 231.